Reposed in tranquility at the edge of the rugged heights of the Cairngorms National Park lies the Balmoral estate. At the estate’s heart stands Balmoral Castle, the old baronial-style house adorned with its pepper-pot turrets and battlemented porte-cochère – and housed within its walls, a lavish ballroom. But where once this venue of celebration witnessed the riotous joy of the ghillies ball and a young Princess Elizabeth dancing with abandon, an almost sacred silence has now descended.
At the centre of this silence, 84 years later and draped in the Royal Standard, that same vibrant young girl who rose to become a monarch and the graceful embodiment of a Commonwealth of Nations, now lies at rest, her name on the lips of millions.
Extending over an area of 50,000 acres, the Balmoral estate encompasses ancient Caledonian pine forest where red deer can be seen grazing on the mossy undergrowth. Bordering the woodlands, expansive moorlands play host to an abundance of birdlife. The river Dee, teeming with salmon and trout, charts its course through a valley guarded by seven Munros, the highest of which, Lochnagar, reaches a lofty 3,789 ft.
Queen Elizabeth: a chance encounter
Now, the Balmoral estate has become a focal point for mourners who gather there to pay their respects, laying flowers, cards and letters at the gate. At other times, the estate attracts visitors from all corners of the earth, not just because of its deep association with the Royal family but also for its sheer untarnished natural beauty. It is much sought out as a location for hikers from across the globe who are able to savour its rare allure at certain times of the year.
On one such walking holiday, an American couple finding themselves enjoying the easy splendour of the Balmoral surrounds, chanced to meet two fellow hikers wandering toward them. One was a middle-aged man of obvious stature who evidently looked after himself and the other a humble, unassuming elderly lady dressed in tweed and wearing a headscarf.
They stopped to greet each other, and the gregarious American gentleman began enthusing about where they had come from, the places they’d visited on their journey, and where they were planning to go from there. He then ventured to ask the lady in tweed “Where do you live?”, to which she replied, “Well, I live in London, but I’ve got a holiday home just on the other side of those hills”.
He then curiously inquired, “Oh, well, how often have you been coming up here?”
She replied, “I’ve been coming up here ever since I was a little girl, so over eighty years”.
He pondered a moment and said, “Well, if you’ve been coming here over eighty years, you must have met the Queen?”
To which the elderly lady replied, “Well, I haven’t, but Dick here meets her regularly”.
Eagerly turning to her male companion, “You’ve met the Queen! What’s she like?” he asked.
With a glint in his eye, Dick replied “Oh, she can be very cantankerous at times, but she’s got a lovely sense of humour”.
The tourists, evidently bowled over to have met someone with such a close connection to the Royal household, immediately threw enthusiastic arms around Dick’s shoulders, and his elderly companion, a camera suddenly placed in her hands, was politely petitioned to take a photograph. After the snap was taken, they swapped places and Dick took a photo of the hikers with his octogenarian walking partner.
As they waved goodbye to the visitors from across the Atlantic, Queen Elizabeth turned to her protection officer Dick Griffin and chuckled, “I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he shows these photos to his American friends and hopefully someone tells him who I am”.
An all too rare glimpse behind the staid, duty-bound public carapace reveals an Elizabeth possessed of a charmingly playful sense of humour and a warm depth of humanity too often obscured by the fustiness of royal protocol. Underneath the reassuring calm afforded by her dutiful constancy in the eyes of the public around the world, was a woman with an all-too-human heart.
The touch of a hand
Here is a woman who has known 15 prime ministers, the first of whom was born in 1874 and the last born in 1975. Here is a woman who has visited almost every nation on this earth and engaged equally with the humblest and the highest. Here is a woman who has seen tyrannies rise and fall, empires scattered, and the relentless white heat of technological change transform all our lives for good and for ill.
Throughout all she remained constant, a calm observing presence in the centre of maelstroms; at least, that’s how she is perceived. For how can someone remain untainted though witnessing so much? The truth is that she was changed, how could she not be? Yet her constancy in a world of inconstancy secured and engendered in her a human wisdom.
Welsh trauma surgeon David Nott suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, inevitable after dedicating himself to working in disaster and war zones as a volunteer for Médecins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross. From Afghanistan to Bosnia to Sierra Leone he has attended those who have seen untold brutality and suffered life-altering injuries. Having gained a wealth of experience, he spent a year training and assisting medical students and doctors to conduct trauma surgeries in Aleppo and latterly in Ukraine.
Invited to Buckingham Palace to dine with Queen Elizabeth, a mere week after leaving war-torn Aleppo, David found himself gripped by a sudden emotional impasse. “I’d come back from this carnage and the contrast between that and the beauty of Buckingham Palace was just a bit too much for me to cope with”, he said. “Perhaps it was because she is the mother of the nation, and I had lost my own mother. My bottom lip started to go and all I wanted to do was to burst into tears, but I held myself together as best I could. I hoped she wouldn’t ask me another question about Aleppo. I knew if she did, I would completely lose control.”
The Queen apparently paused and touched David’s hand. She then turned briefly to a courtier and spoke quietly. The corgis were brought into the dining room.
David watched as the Queen opened a silver box full of biscuits. She took one, broke it in half and gave it to him as the corgis gathered expectantly at the table, “These are for the dogs”, she said. A lightness, a sense of safety and reassurance, soon settled over David as they both proceeded to feed the corgis together, the Queen naming each one as they stroked and pampered them in turn.
David recounted, “All the while we were stroking and petting them, and my anxiety and distress drained away”.
“There”, said the Queen, eventually, “That’s so much better than talking, isn’t it?”
The sheltering eaves
A deep awareness of how to respond to obvious human distress in the moment of its arising and to act with understated but powerful empathy, gives us a glimpse of an Elizabeth who somehow we felt was ever-present yet seldom on display in her dignified and stoic poise. It is her intuition, instinctively knowing when and how to soothe, yet remaining strong and matriarchal, that embodies the strength of her iconography. It resonates with us at a deep level – a place where myth meets reality and embraces us. Mother, grandmother, great grandmother.
It is recognised in the projection of the union flag on the Matterhorn, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, and the Brandenburg Gate. It is recognised in the lighting of candles outside the British Embassy in Prague, the flags representing the nations of Europe lowered to half-mast in Brussels, the diners spontaneously standing for a minute of silence in restaurants all over France, the makeshift memorial outside a British pub in Santa Monica, and the young girl clutching a photograph of a gently smiling old lady in Nairobi.
In her native islands, it manifests in the pilgrimages made to where she still lies in her beloved ballroom at Balmoral, to Windsor Castle and the Great Park where she would gallop her treasured horses, and to where her constancy lives on through King Charles III, dutifully taking up a dignified residence at Buckingham Palace. It manifests in a nation that has descended into a pause, a space between worlds.
The ancient oaks lining the long driveway leading out of Balmoral will soon give shelter to the ceremonial procession as she leaves her sanctuary for the last time. She will be taken to rest a while at Holyrood House, guarded over by a long extinct volcano and the modern thriving Scottish Parliament. Many will travel to Edinburgh to bear witness to her lying-in-state, to express their sorrow, to lay bouquets, to quietly pay their respects.
A nation will be, perhaps for a hallowed moment, unified in giving voice to a loss that reaches into the most subtle of realms within. A place that unites us for a time in a world riven by chaos, rancour, war and division. A place that is yet to be sculpted into shape – a future we have the agency to choose.